Delay of Gratification Definition
Delay of gratification requires resisting the impulse to take an immediately available reward, in the hopes of obtaining a more valued reward in the future. For example, a person who wakes up feeling tired can make the impulsive choice of going back to sleep or can delay gratification by getting up, making coffee, going to work, and hence feeling productive and alert. The ability to delay gratification is an essential to regulating or controlling oneself.
Delay of Gratification Background
The dilemma of whether to give in to temptation or to resist in favor of a long-term benefit has plagued humans from the beginning of time. It has been discussed in every major philosophical and religious tradition. Best known to those of Judeo-Christian background is the story of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit. By giving in to this very first temptation, Adam and Eve forfeited the rewards of living under God’s care in the Garden of Eden. At the same time, people gained a greater awareness of the consequences of their choices. Indeed, this awareness may be what makes human life unique.
In addition to the fundamental desires that support humans’ basic needs, Henry Frankfurt, a philosopher, points out that humans form second-order desires, which are desires to change those fundamental desires. For example, a teenager falling in love for the first time experiences sexual desire but at the same time may feel a second-order desire to remain abstinent to adhere to a moral code or to avoid the risks that come with sexual activity. Second-order desires emerge from our ability to anticipate the future and recognize a long-term benefit to suppressing our immediate impulse. Indeed, the capacity to delay gratification is essential to human accomplishment and thus has become an important topic for psychological inquiry.
A Classic Experimental Situation
To study the conditions that promote delay of gratification, Walter Mischel and his colleagues designed an experimental situation in which an experimenter sets up a challenge for a child. The child is asked to choose between a larger treat, such as two cookies, and a smaller treat, such as one cookie. After stating a preference for the larger treat, the child learns that to obtain that treat, he or she must wait for the experimenter to return. The child is also told that if he or she signals the experimenter, the experimenter will return, and the child will receive the smaller treat. Thus, the smaller treat is available now, but the larger treat requires waiting. To get the larger treat, the child must resist the temptation to get an immediate treat.
This experimental situation has proven very useful both in demonstrating the importance of the ability to delay gratification and in identifying strategies that make it possible for children to delay. Children who are best able to wait in this situation at 4 years old are more socially and academically successful as high school students and they earn higher Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores. The procedure adapted for adolescents by Edelgard Wulfert and his colleagues has revealed that middle and high school students who waited a week for a monetary reward earn higher grades, show less problem behavior in school, and are less likely to use cigarettes, alcohol, and other drugs than their peers who chose not to wait.
The Warm/Cool Model
By varying the situation, researchers have learned what enables children to wait effectively. Waiting is made more difficult when children attend to the hot or emotional aspects of the reward; waiting is easier when children attend to the cool or intellectual aspects of the situation. For example, children who are told to think of marshmallow rewards as little fluffy clouds are better able to wait than those who are told to think of the sweet, chewy texture of the marshmallows.
Good waiters have learned ways to distract themselves from the hot rewards and instead activate their cool systems. A child with a good ability to delay might sing a happy tune to him- or herself and look around the room while waiting. A child with a poor ability to delay might instead focus on the cookie and its satisfying sweet taste. Children improve in their cooling strategies over time. Almost all adolescents can easily endure the 10-minute wait that is very challenging for a preschooler.
Unfortunately, the cool system is most difficult to access when it is needed most. Stress impairs the ability to delay gratification. The first semester in college, for example, when it would be quite advantageous to control urges to drink and eat excessively, is a time when these urges are frequently indulged. In addition, chronic stress during childhood impairs the development of the ability to delay gratification.
This program of research has gone a long way toward mapping how people’s ability to delay gratification develops and has highlighted just how useful waiting can be. It does not, however, address people’s capacity to use this ability judiciously.
Delay as a Motivational Tendency
Rather than conceptualizing delay of gratification as an ability, Jack Block, David Funder, and their colleagues have identified it as one expression of ego control, a person’s more general tendency to inhibit impulses. On the low end of this continuum is the undercontrolled individual who spontaneously expresses his or her wants, without concern about the future. On the high end is the overcontrolled individual who restrains the self, even when it is not necessary. Both undercontrol and overcontrol are maladaptive. The undercontrolled individual is unable to work toward long-term goals, such as pursuing a challenging career path. The over-controlled individual misses opportunities to experience pleasure and express feelings.
To measure this tendency to delay, these researchers developed an experimental situation in which children are shown an attractively wrapped present and told that it is for them, but that it will be set aside while they work on a puzzle. Delay of gratification is measured by the degree to which the child resists attending to and opening the gift. It is clear to the child that he or she will receive the gift regardless of his or her behavior, and so in this situation, delay behavior is not necessarily adaptive.
Gender Differences in Delay of Gratification
Interestingly, delaying gratification in this experimental situation has more positive implications for girls than for boys. Girls who delay are described by adults who know them well as “having high intellectual capacity” and being “competent” and “resourceful,” while those who do not delay gratification are described as being “emotionally labile” and “sulky or whiny.” Boys who delay gratification, on the other hand, are described as “shy and reserved,” “obedient,” and “anxious,” while boys who do not are described as “vital, energetic, and lively” and “self-assertive.” These differences may reflect the value our culture places on self-control for girls, while revealing a cultural acceptance of a certain degree of impulsivity among boys. In this way, the culture may encourage boys to develop behavior patterns that can cause them many problems later in life.
Clearly then, waiting is not always rewarded, and it can be a tricky business, especially for boys, to learn when to wait and when to indulge. Hence, in real life, delay of gratification is a function of both ego control and what these researchers call ego resiliency, or the capacity to be flexible and skillful in making social decisions. Such decisions can be more complicated than they appear at first.
The Behavioral Economics Approach to Delay of Gratification
The clever approach taken by Howard Rachlin illuminates the logic that leads to a cycle of impulsivity, even when the delayed alternative is clearly advantageous in the long run. In a self-control dilemma, the impulsive choice will always produce greater pleasure. The overeater, for example, will be given a boost by a tasty snack. Whether the overeater is in a festive mood or in a depressed state, that tasty snack will make him or her feel better than he or she presently feels. The problem, of course, is that too many tasty snacks will eventually make the overeater miserable.
Even if the overeater has accepted the goal of lowering his or her calorie intake, having the snack now can be justified. This one last snack will not make a difference. After it, the overeater can abide by his or her long-term intention and derive the health and appearance benefits of a lower weight. And so it goes, with the short-term option often having more value in the present than the delayed option, leading the unwitting individual down the primrose path to addiction.
Delay of Gratification Implications
Given the emotional appeal of the short-term option, it is impressive that children learn to wait. Mischel’s work has shown that it is a well-developed cool system that allows them to do so. Funder and Block point out that people are naturally inclined toward hot or cool responses, and that adaptive responding depends on our ability to know when waiting makes sense. According to Rachlin, knowing is not enough. People need to commit to adaptive patterns of action rather than considering actions individually. In doing so, they are working together with their future selves to create a life of the highest subjective value over time. While challenging, such a quest for happiness is a uniquely human opportunity.
- Funder, D. C., & Block, J. (1989). The role of ego-control, ego-resiliency, and IQ in delay of gratification in adolescence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(6), 1041-1050.
- Mischel, W., & Ayduk, O. (2004). Willpower in a cognitive-affective processing system: The dynamics of delay of gratification. In R. F. Baumeister & K. D. Vohs (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation: Research, theory, and applications (pp. 99-129). New York: Guilford Press.
- Rachlin, H. (2000). The science of self-control. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.